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The Lost Boys of Tryon

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The approach to Tryon prison.  

“Dear Judge Turbow, I’m here to tell you how much my life has changed since I’ve been in this facility. I went from being the toughest kid in my population to trying to be a positive leader for the negative kids in my presence … I have even tried to hold it together when family and friends died while I was incarcerated … I’m sorry to everybody I hurt in the past, my mother and father for putting them through this, you Judge Turbow for wasting your time on nonsense like this … I am writing to tell you I have learned my lesson and I beg you to give me one more chance back into my community. You can take my word for it as a young man I won’t let you down … ”

The idea of removing troubled kids from their homes and sending them to an institution to be cared for by strangers dates back to 1825, when the nation’s first juvenile prison opened in Manhattan, on what is now Madison Square Park. Known as the House of Refuge, it quickly became a place where poor Irish kids were locked up for vagrancy and minor crimes. Almost from the start, the experiment did not work. After a few years of sunny press reports, stories began trickling out about kids being whipped and shackled. Nonetheless, the basic notion of the House of Refuge endured, perhaps because it moved these kids off the streets and out of sight.

Over the decades, the practice of locking up troubled kids became so widespread that it provided another political benefit: jobs. In 1966, when Governor Nelson Rockefeller presided over a ceremony celebrating the start of Tryon’s construction, he made a point of noting that Tryon would create 350 jobs. And he lauded the facility as “another step forward in the state’s programs to meet its social responsibilities.”

When Tryon first opened, it was known as a “training school” for both juvenile delinquents and “PINS kids”—out-of-control kids whose desperate parents had gone to court to declare their child a person in need of supervision. “It was a real scary place to be,” says Robert McElver, a former pins kid who was sent to Tryon in 1972 at age 15. While he was playing pool in Oakwood Cottage one day, three boys attacked him; he fought off two, but then the third smashed him in the face with a pool ball, breaking his nose. “I just remember being extremely depressed,” he says. “I missed my mother, everybody else in my family.”

Kids have swallowed screws, cut their arms, drunk cleaning fluid, and tried to strangle themselves with everything from long underwear to a garden hose.

As scary as Tryon could be, there were some kids whose home life was worse. Michael Pettit, who worked at Tryon for 31 years, remembers one kid he supervised in the late seventies. “Finally he was released. Couldn’t stand his family and what they were doing. He walked from his home in Saratoga to Maplewood Cottage,” Pettit says. “Twenty-five miles he walked, at night, in the winter.” It was 9:30 p.m. when Pettit heard a knock. “Mr. Pettit, I couldn’t take it,” the boy said. “I’d rather be here.”

In the beginning, Tryon had no fence, and the boys often got to leave the grounds. They would go to the movies in Albany or to the roller rink in Glens Falls. “Me and 23 kids in a rickety old van. Never had a problem,” Pettit says. The boys were also permitted to go home for the holidays. There were always some kids who had nowhere to go, however, and so the Tryon staff would bring them to their own homes. Then, in the mid-nineties, after Governor George Pataki’s election, everything changed.

In a sign of what was to come, the job of deputy director for “rehabilitative services” was filled by the former warden of Shawangunk prison. It didn’t take long before New York’s juvenile facilities began to feel not all that different from Attica or Sing Sing or Shawangunk. Boys in uniforms marching around. No more home visits. No more field trips. No more staff playing basketball with the kids. If a kid had to go off campus—for a doctor’s visit or to court—he had to wear shackles and handcuffs. Employees who had come to Tryon because they wanted to help kids suddenly found themselves cast in the role of prison guard.

Longtime employees still talk about the moment the razor-wire fence went up. “That had a very negative effect on the whole place,” says John Warner, who started at Tryon in 1974 and oversaw Briarwood Cottage for nearly twenty years. “I think kids stopped feeling like they were residents and started feeling like they were prisoners. And I think staff stopped feeling like staff and started feeling like guards. I think that was the beginning of the end.”


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